In a small Off-Broadway theatre a musical opened that would set the record as the longest-running show in New York. The musical was The Fantasticks and the year was 1960. The charm of the show, which was loosely based on a Rostand play (The Romancers) with elements drawn from Romeo and Juliet and the Pyramus and Thisbe story from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is its chief calling card, along with the memorable songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (“Try To Remember,” “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” “They Were You,” “I Can See it”). Now that the show has been done in every high school, every country, and every regional theatre, the score has become classic.
I wondered why Reprise and its Artistic Director Jason Alexander would want to reprise this particular show, other than possibly for economic reasons, which are notable: the show has a cast of five, minimal sets, and a two-piece orchestra (piano and harp). But to my surprise, Mr. Alexander has expanded on the play, added more musical instruments (no harp), tried a few innovations, and cast the show with several name actors, Eric McCormack of Will and Grace being the most famous.
The result is a mixed bag. The innovation of having one of the fathers played by a woman (the wonderful Eileen T’Kaye) worked very well. On the other hand, the expansion of the mute’s role into every scene, dancing up a storm and upstaging some of the action, is a disaster. This is not to say that the young actress involved, the lovely Kim Mikesell, didn’t perform what was required well. In fact she is very talented. But the way she was included in, and even interfered in, every scene became a major annoyance.
Mr. Alexander has his main actors (with the exception of Mr. McCormack) present exaggerated versions of the characters. This takes away from the simplicity of the piece and at times feels quite wrongheaded. The boy, Matt (Lucas Grabeel), ends up playing his part as if on speed. Perhaps this is a leftover from his stint in High School Musical, but I suspect Alexander is the culprit. As for the role of Luisa, the pretty Allison Woods ends up commenting on her performance rather than feeling it. Even the terrific Tony-nominated actor Harry Groener (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was pushed to be silly. Did Mr. Alexander not trust his material?
That said, when I got past the excesses, I quite enjoyed myself. How wonderful to hear the new orchestrations with a bigger band. The singing was excellent, and the clowning, when it was appropriate, was executed with great skill by Barry Dennan as The Old Actor and Hap Lawrence as Mortimer. I really enjoyed Mr. McCormack because he has not only a nice voice but an easy way with himself and the audience. One might wish he was a tad scarier, but I am quibbling.
The Fantasticks will play at U.C.L.A. Freud Playhouse until May 17. Tickets can be purchased through Reprise.